Last Thursday Leslie was on Governor Murphy’s staff call with religious leaders across the state. As you know, the governor has extended NJ’s Public Health Emergency until June 5th. It was disheartening to learn of the extension of the public health emergency measures. It is disheartening to read the science on the dangers of group singing. The rabbis who were on the call with the Governor’s staff were asking for advice on planning for the High Holy Days in September. The Governor’s staff indirectly advised them to plan for virtual gatherings this fall. Last week we offered resources and held conversations about the many logistical issues and safety measures that sessions should consider as they plan for eventual reopening of church buildings. After the phone call with the governor’s staff, our sense is that we cannot safely reopen our buildings for gathered worship anytime soon. We believe it may be necessary to plan to worship virtually through the rest of 2020.
GA Co-Moderator Cindy Kohlmann asks this:
“Do we want to use the resources of time, talent, and treasure available to us to figure out protocols and practicalities for opening buildings in a way that might help people stay safe but will not be guaranteed…
Do we want to use the resources of time, talent, and treasure available to us to be the body of Christ dispersed and deployed until it is safe for all people to return to our buildings without restrictions?
Which is more faithful?”
We do not believe there will be enough safety protocols in place to reopen church buildings for worship any time soon. We believe it’s time for us to lean into into this virtual world we have entered, and plan accordingly.
We believe that lament is a faithful response in corporate worship and private prayer. We have experienced loss: people, certainty, freedom of movement, employment, proximity to family, we have lost a world which we perhaps took for granted. There is a rich tradition of lament in our scriptures. God hears us when we cry.
We believe it is time to “pivot”, which is Jeremy’s word. The Holy Spirit is nudging us to lean into this moment, even if we can’t quite embrace it. We made it through Holy Week and Easter, and most of us now have some rhythm of worshiping online or by telephone. We have begun to understand how to worship together while apart, even with the inevitable technology glitches. This is our new normal for now. We encourage you to “get up on the balcony” for broad overview of your ministries, which have shifted so profoundly in these last two months. It’s time to speak gently and honestly with one another about what’s working well, what we are learning, what needs to shift, and what we might need to discard. We believe there is resurrection in this pandemic time. We are being reshaped and reborn.
We believe that it is a matter of survival for congregations to make online giving available as soon as possible. The Presbyterian Foundation can help set up this service, and the turnaround time is about 10 days. Yes, there is a small fee per transaction. Yes, it will take some intentional work to help people begin to change their giving habits. Most of you report having visitors and guests in your virtual worship services. Please make it possible for them to give in gratitude for the ministry of your church at this time.
The Vision and Administration Teams held a spirited discussion this week regarding considerations around partial reopening of buildings for the use of small groups with appropriate safety and distancing protocols. We think there will be some specific (and welcome) guidance from the governor’s office for religious and worshiping communities in the near future, and we will make that broadly available as soon as possible. We encourage you to think theologically about the opening of church buildings. If one group might be able to meet with appropriate safety protocols, but another group cannot meet safely because its members are vulnerable, what might that mean for your discernment about your common life? Paul’s imagery of care for all of the members the Body of Christ is particularly resonant here.
We believe that your energy, imagination, intelligence, and love will carry us through into this new life. We are so grateful to be serving with you in Elizabeth Presbytery at this extraordinary time. We make church rounds every Sunday, and are so heartened to be worshiping with you. There’s so much creativity! Yet we are all exhausted. We are asking every leader in this presbytery to make plans now for a “staycation” sometime in these next few months. Our bodies and our spirits and our minds need rest. To that end we would like to propose a presbytery wide group collaboration to pre record 4 Sundays of worship and liturgy, to be made available for use by any church in the presbytery later this summer. This will need pre-planning and lots of organization, but has the potential to yield fabulous fruit. We’re just dreaming this up now, so send us an email if you are interested in participating, and we will start planning!
Jeremy and Leslie
The Rev. Leslie Dobbs-Allsopp
Interim Leader for Elizabeth Presbytery
Interim Leader New Brunswick Presbytery